The Conceits of Centrism

Centrism is back! That’s the overwhelming interpretation of Tuesday’s elections by Sunday-section commentators in the RTD as well as The Washington Post and The New York Times; see Larry Sabato’s election post-mortem as well as David Brooks’s most recent column for good examples of the genre.

These pundits argue that voters want an end to “ideological” mudslinging and a new era of cooperative, bipartisan policymaking that transcends partisan differences for the sake of effectively advancing the common good. Many of the new Democratic senators and representatives describe themselves in just these terms.

The “forgotten moderate” is always a popular figure among American punditry, and political scientists delight in celebrating the virtues of checks and balances and the dangers of unrestricted partisan rule.

And indeed, perhaps there are some issues on which leadership from the “vital center” in the next couple of years could be most welcome and possibly even effective. If centrists in Congress can help broker with the White House a sensible exit strategy from Iraq over the next year, that would be a major accomplishment.

But there are limits to “centrism” and bipartisan hopefulness that need to be recognized as well. Consider four key points:

First, before we deride all “ideology” as dangerous, we need to parse exactly what we mean by the word. If by “ideology,” we mean values, principles, and moral convictions, then “ideology” should be the last thing we want our politics to be drained of. Politicians should stand for something, and they should not be shy in conveying to the public what they stand for and why.

But if by “ideology,” we mean an a priori commitment to some particular policy instrument for advancing such ends–such as the a priori commitment of many Republicans to to tax cuts as the solution to, well, everything–then “ideology” becomes a more dangerous affair. Inflexible commitment to some preordained solution that is impervious to the accumulation of evidence and experience is a recipe for bad policymaking. It’s in that specific sense that “ideology” should be regarded as troubling.

But leaders who can combine commitment to strong moral principles with a sense of flexibility, pragmatism, and creativity in advancing those principles and values should be welcomed, not derided as ideologues.

Second, it’s simply not going to be possible to tackle any number of issues–most notably the health care crisis–without provoking a fair amount of ideological and partisan conflict. Any Democrat who advances a serious solution on health care is going to be bitterly attacked by conservatives and those who benefit from the health care status quo. Does this mean that they should not try, for fear of provoking partisan conflict? Of course not.

To avoid tackling serious issues–or to settle only for non-controversial, band-aid steps that don’t touch the deeper problem–in order to avoid partisan conflict would be to embrace a cure that’s worse than the disease.

Third, no one should fool themselves into thinking that the right wing of the Republican party has gone away. “Movement conservatives”are still with us, and they are not going to stop being “ideological” or partisan. Rather, they’re going to be looking for every opportunity to gather ammunition for the next round of electoral battle. Rove et al are not interested in bipartisan, balance; they want to achieve long-term political supremacy, and ultimately to dismantle the last vestiges of the New Deal.

To counter that possibility, Democrats must articulate their own vision of the role of government in promoting fairness and social justice. If the Democrats cannot explain–either to voters or themselves–what government should do (in broad terms) and why, or what obligations citizens have towards one another, then in the long run, American politics will keep shifting further and further to the right.

This observation leads us the fourth and final point: the political center should not be confused with the moral center. The political center consists of what is politically possible, here and now, given the current state of political opinion. The moral center consists of what the right thing to do is, regardless of current public opinion.

Obviously, different people define the “moral center” in different ways. Anti-abortion activists define it differently than radical feminists, to take an obvious example. A general progressive definition of the “moral center” would be a society that treats everyone fairly, gives everyone substantive equality of opportunity, empowers and protects workers, and ensures that no one falls through the cracks and that no one’s life is devalued.

Over the long haul, the political challenge is to move the political center in the direction of whichever definition of the “moral center” one favors. Readers will not be shocked, I trust, to learn that this blog is partial to the progressive definition of the moral center given above.

To move the political center closer to the moral center is no easy thing, but it has happened repeatedly throughout American history, the debate over slavery in the 19th century being the most pointed example. From a progressive point of view, making it happen in the 21st century will require three steps:

1. Bringing in new people to the political process who don’t vote now and feel disconnected and distrustful of politics, but might support progressive goals.

2. Better, more effective, and above all more organizing, at all levels; and, establishing relationships and relationships of accountability between progressive organizations and political leaders.

3. Winning in the ongoing battle of ideas. But to win that battle, you have to have ideas to fight with.

One way to engage that battle is to look at the long-term possibilities of using the enormous wealth of this country in ways which dramatically improve everyone’s quality of life, as articulated in a piece this writer co-authored last year.

A second, more modest but equally essential way is to express just what Democrats stand for and why, as well as some thoughts on how those values might be advanced in both the short term and long term.

That’s an essential task, and it’s inescapably a partisan task and an ideological task. Yet even smart moderates should recognize that if American politics is not, in the long run, to be overtaken by the organized movement conservatives, there needs to be a strongly expressed countervailing philosophy of government expressed by the Democratic Party and its leadership.

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Published in: on November 12, 2006 at 5:39 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thad, Just want to thank you for keeping at this and say how much I appreciate your clear and comprehensive comments. I missed the Richmond connection in the original Nation article. Really do hope and expect that someday soon we’ll be reading your work, or something comperable, in the RTD. In the meantime, I’m glad we can read it here.


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